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Episode 76
Antoni Tàpies Centenary with Toni Tàpies and Natasha Hébert

  • 20 min read

Episode Description

An exploration of the life and work of the incredibly influential Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies. 2023 will mark what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday. Tàpies’ son Toni Tàpies and daughter-in-law Natasha Hébert join me to discuss the materiality, philosophy and symbolism that were hallmarks of Tàpies’ work, as well as details about the events planned to honor his centenary in the coming year.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, we explore the life and work of the incredibly influential Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies. 2023 will mark what would have been the artist's 100th birthday. Tàpies is son Toni Tàpies and daughter in law Natasha Abbott joined me to discuss the materiality, philosophy and symbolism that will hallmarks of Tàpies, his work, as well as details about the events planned to honor his centenary in the coming year. And now a conversation about the life and legacy of Antonio Tàpies with Toni Tàpies and Natasha Hébert.

Craig: [00:01:06] Toni Tàpies and Natasha Hébert, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. I wanted you guys to join me this week so that we could talk about the iconic artist Antoni Tàpies. You know, I guess a great starting question for you guys is for the person that may not be super familiar with Tàpies work for whatever reason. How would you start to describe the body of work that that he left behind?

Toni: [00:01:40] My father, Tàpies, has a very large body of art because he began quite young. And I think in 1943 and he worked all the time until he passed away in 2012. So it's a quite large body of art, and he passed through different periods. It's not exactly the same at the beginning than in the middle of the career and at the end. At the beginning, he had quite an influence from the surrealists. So he has a period of some years influenced by surrealism. But also from the beginning he had a lot of interest in matter in the paintings. So the oil paintings finally didn't work quite well for him. And he passed very quickly to the most known material paintings with quite well live. And he could do a lot of marks, a lot of signs, scratchings, etc.. And in general, I would say that my father was interested in philosophy and spirituality in all religions, in fact. And I think his work was quite transcendent and I think he would like that the viewer understands that even very simple and humble forms or objects can be very important in our life. This is why you will find frequently images of socks or shoes or chairs or beds, which usually we don't understand that they are works of art or objects that can be transformed in a work of art. But my father thought that was important to pinpoint the importance of very humble objects and things.

Natasha: [00:04:29] Now, if I if I can add, Tàpies was very interested in the human experience and the human spirituality, but somehow finding what connects us together. And the idea was it's like in the Buddhist religion is when you drink in a cup of tea and you look inside the cup of tea, then you are able by this simple act to connect with every human being. So Tàpies was very interested in finding these signs that you can find through all the culture and through time, because he was very interested in history as well. And I think it was very curious about graffiti, but graffiti from the beginning. I'm talking about graffiti from the the what you find in houses in Pompeii, the graffiti you found in ancient Greece. And at the same time, the graffiti that you will find in his own city. So you worked with this kind of graffiti and marks and, you know, small life marking themselves, trying to make themselves universal and eternal. So, yeah.

Craig: [00:05:44] There's so much to unpack there. You know, I think one of the interesting things is this whole notion that the family's name Tàpies means wall or to wall in. And so the fact that he has a proclivity to kind of emulate graffiti on these surfaces that he was making...I think one of the things that people were pushing back on his work and the beginning was that he wasn't even necessarily using paint. You had to call them paintings for them to to fit a category. But he was he was making work, especially when you start talking about the materiality and the scratches and the marks. You know, they are closely tied to what somebody would see as the scars and history on the walls of of a civilization. Correct?

Natasha: [00:06:50] Absolutely. Absolutely. I think you really nailed it somehow. Yes. It's this whole idea to like, how do you project yourself through your vanity and through living there in history. And I think the reference with scars also is very important. So it's the same as graffiti, but it's on your own body. Your body's history and all the time, like what makes you human through these  experiences?

Toni: [00:07:20] I think it's also very impacted for the by the civil war in Spain from '36 to '39. It was a terrible war and it was a very political war also. And on the walls you could see at this period many political grafittis and even impacts of bullets or bombs. And I think all this impacted into my father's mind when he was a teenager.

Craig: [00:08:02] I think one of the things when I look at your father's work, it feels so contemporary and it just feels like work that we would see being made by the people at the front edge of contemporary work today. I don't know if that speaks to how ahead of his time his thinking was or how influential he was on contemporary artists today. Even someone's sculpture like Doris Salcedo, in many ways it reminds me of sculpture and work I've seen of Tàpies. And you know, Doris Salcedo grew up in Colombia during a time which was just as traumatic as those early years during the Spanish Civil War. And so, why is it that when I look at this, you know, I will see something from from the '40s and '50s and think that it could have been made by a contemporary artist last week.

Natasha: [00:09:05] Why? Why is that? I think I don't want to be too mystical here, but I think that somehow he was able to dig, to dig very deep inside of his own creativity. And it was...for him, it was very important somehow to be cut from the world when he would be creating. So his studio had no window. He had two studios, they had no windows. It was very important for him to be able to like, really get inside and, you know, and connect with what was inside and his own imaginary and imagination. But somehow there's something very mystical coming out of it because he was able to connect with a source that is is so strong. And this is why we say it's very universal. And I don't know if it's a source of pain or joy or, you know, there's something about all of this together. But he was able to get there. And I think some artists will say that they also are able to get to this place. And it's a very special place when you talk about art and creativity and you're going to call it the flow or something like that. But I think he was able to put together all these readings, all these observations about the world, all this thinking, but also the work that he saw coming out of other artists. Like he wouldn't hide that it was influenced by other artists or that he was interested. He was very competitive. He wanted to know what was out there and he was trying to be the best. And I think he was. And yes, and he's still very fresh. It's incredibly it looks incredibly new. There are no days when I look at paintings that I don't see something new that I haven't seen before. So there's it's also there's also this kind of constant, constant changing of the painting that you feel that the meaning is changing over time. And I don't know how I can explain this as well, but it's very strong.

Craig: [00:11:18] That's a really interesting comment because I feel like from the interviews I've listened to from Tàpies, it feels like he was trying to create room for the viewer to create this reality. He felt like his work was just as realistic as figurative painting, but it was in that he was creating a space for someone to have a real emotional experience. And if we are filling in all of those gaps with our own experiences and emotions and whatever our baggage is, maybe as our circumstances change, our readings of the paintings change and they speak to us in a different way.

Toni: [00:12:04] Exactly. Exactly.

Speaker3: [00:12:05] Yeah. And you also, if you look at the title, I love the titles because there's the simplest expression that you can find. So if in the painting you have an eight and a plus, then the painting is titled "Eight Plus". So it's like if it's a square, it's title "The Square". But the meaning is not there. Like it's not giving you the meaning of the painting, but you see, yeah, of course there's a square. But there's something way more important just beside it that is not naming. So maybe it's a skull, maybe it's a leg. Maybe it's physical, it's sexual, it's a scar. But he will not tell you what it is. It's not like a scar from the war, you know, it's a triangle.

Toni: [00:12:49] He was not very interested in explaining the sense of each painting. This is the reason why he put these little titles, very descriptive of something in the painting, but no clue to explain what he has done. He wanted that the we the viewer has his own explanation, his own view so the viewer has to work a little bit. It's far from anything decorative.

Craig: [00:13:36] I've always found it really interesting and I'm sure Tàpies did also how certain symbols have a universal meaning across millennia, across societies. And, you know, for example, the square is tied to the earth and the circle tied to the heavens. And that's whenever we see like Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, he puts the circle inside the square. And that man is different because he's at the, you know, kind of a bridge between here and beyond. And, you know, a cross could be tied to Christianity, but a cross is also the cardinal elements north, south, east and west. And I feel like this is something that he thought a lot about, but he left a lot of doors open, correct?

Natasha: [00:14:23] Yeah. Yeah. And some spontaneity. But also even even if sometimes it looks very spontaneous and very improvised, we can find sketches of some of these paintings. So, yes, it was well thought...there was a thinking behind it, but then it looks very spontaneous and improvised. So and yes, as you say, like lots of doors are open and and you can play with it yourself. And I think it's why people feel that the paintings are so familiar but unsettled. Like they don't always feel comfortable, but they feel that it's talking to them somehow. And I would just add a little thing because I saw I don't know anything about Chinese writing, but I saw some Chinese people were able to even read something in some Tàpies painting.

Craig: [00:15:22] Oh, wow.

Natasha: [00:15:23] Like, they were like, not words really, but something that felt very familiar for them. Some graffiti. And they were like, "Why? What was he trying to say?" And it's very interesting.

Toni: [00:15:38] Because my father was very interested in in Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. So probably for the reason that Japanese people could feel very close to my father's paintings.

Craig: [00:15:58] With them, its use of symbolism in that work, and living in a country that was part of a regime. Did anyone ever try to accuse him of, you know, communicating some sort of subversive rhetoric in those paintings?

Toni: [00:16:18] What do you know?

Natasha: [00:16:21] I don't think that people were accusing him of being subversive. I think was people were very pleased. Well, I think they were really open to the idea of, you know.

Toni: [00:16:34] In the period of the dictatorship, the government tried to use some Spanish contemporary artists to promote the Spanish regime, but most of them, including my father, rejected any kind of collaboration, of course, because my father was always for democracy and freedom. So I think the political messages are quite subtle. And so, I think one day the dictatorship Franco saw some of his paintings and he said, "well, if the painters, the actual painters are so few radical, they don't annoy us because he thought they have no power. This was the thought of The General Franco.

Natasha: [00:17:59] Yeah. Yeah. And it's interesting because as the time passed through dictator and going toward democracy, Tàpies started to use more and more objects from the Catalan normal life, some plates or some baskets or some that people would easily recognize. So these sculptures and paintings at the time, they were very empowering for the Catalan people to start defining themselves as as a group of people, as a specific culture, but also as being more and more proud of who they were by saying, "Oh my God, these like simple objects, they mean something and they give me power." And that was very simple. I'm talking really plates, chairs, baskets, very simple objects...robes. And I think that was that was very subversive, actually.

Toni: [00:19:01] But I would like to add that, yes, some of these things were clearly political, clearly political. And at the period of the dictatorship, they could not show them in Spain. But he had galleries in France and New York. They could show them there, but not here. That's for sure.

Craig: [00:19:29] And so are those the ones that are tied specifically to Catalan and the ones that are very personal to the Catalan identity, because that's.

Toni: [00:19:40] Some of them. But there are others also which are not specifically in favor of Catalonia independence or autonomy, but they are really against the military regime. He could write assassins, etc.. But he could not show this in Spain.

Craig: [00:20:12] Can we talk a little bit about just how prolific he was in his creation? It felt like it was a daily practice that went on for decades and decades. Do we have a good idea of exactly how much work was produced in the end?

Toni: [00:20:33] Well, I cannot tell you how. I cannot tell you the numbers. But yes, he was very prolific. And right now we are finishing the catalog raisonné. And the last volume is the ninth volume. So we have nine volumes thick ones with all the paintings, drawings and sculpture. And that is another catalog raisonné for graphic work. So, yes, he was...he did work a lot. He worked a lot. I don't remember him having holidays. I don't mean that he worked every day, but he had a beautiful studio in the country house and he went there from June to to October. And then there he worked every day. And then the rest of the year was more for drawings, prints. Sometimes he went to France to do ceramics.

Natasha: [00:21:48] Sketching. He would do like his little sketch preparing for the next summer.

Toni: [00:21:53] Exactly. And so, yes, he was very prolific.

Natasha: [00:21:59] But just to to make it like a long story short, when he decided to be an artist, his father told him that he would never be able to make a living and to support a family. And it was something very, very hurtful for him and very strong. And from day one, he decided that, yes, he would be like prolific, he would be able to survive and support a family. So for him, that was very, very important to make sure that that his work was always getting out. And he had like work to show and shows and everything. So that would be his day, he was very disciplined about his day, like every morning and would go to the studio. So he had like this all like daily discipline. His year discipline like what you would do in the winter, in the summer, and this for more than 60 years. So it's more than 60 years doing this, being, having like a strong will and doing it every day. Every day, every day. And it's amazing. And it's really not the archetype of the artist that you would imagine going to the bar and having like moments that he would go crazy. Parties, no, no, no. He would read. Like he was a collector, so he would like, check everything, have his catalogs, look at everything. He was in the house, in his studio, traveling a bit.

Toni: [00:23:37] Reading was very important from for him and also music. He so many, many afternoons he was in his library. He had his own library on the top of the house. Where I was calm and he. He listened to music. He had hundreds and hundreds of CD's of music.

Craig: [00:24:10] You know, I understand that when he was young, a teenager, he almost died by tuberculosis. The only treatment in those days was rest. And my understanding is that he was kind of left to do nothing but read and draw for two years. And it seems like that kind of became the daily practice that was the foundation for how he spent the rest of his life. Right?. And that was also the time that he during which that he met his wife. Correct? And can we talk about how how she influenced or supported his work?

Toni: [00:24:53] Well, she influenced a lot his work in the sense that she supported him a lot, arranging everyday life for him to be comfortable and traveling always with him. Being always with him. Yeah. Until the end. Yes.

Natasha: [00:25:23] But your father was very impressed by her beauty that there are like many portraits and and there's also many series that he made for his wife. Like it was very much in love with her for day one. So she was very important. But your mother was was also very involved in the creative process. And she...I saw her like curating exhibition and going to the hanging. And, you know, she was very...

Toni: [00:25:56] Sometimes...

Natasha: [00:25:57] She's still alive. So she's a very strong woman and she is very strong willed. And, you know, she can be difficult.

Toni: [00:26:04] Sometimes she could say, "well, this painting, I don't like it very much." My father was not very happy but...

Natasha: [00:26:12] She has strong, strong opinions about hanging. Also, you know, she's like, you know, I think it's very good. I think like she grew with him, you know, over time and they grew together. And and yes, they were very complementary.

Toni: [00:26:30] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Craig: [00:26:32] I think it was very interesting that, you know, in in the middle of types career or, you know, say it's the middle, he had such a long, productive life that he established the foundation in the museum while he was still able to provide input in vision. Can you guys kind of talk about that process and the the legacy that he set the groundwork for there?

Toni: [00:27:02] Yeah, well, at the period when the foundation was created in Barcelona, we didn't have a contemporary art museum. So he felt the obligation to establish a place in his city where one could admire his work, but also admire the work of other artists. So he never wanted a kind of mausoleum. But something alive where different artists could come and do shows. And also are establishing an art library was very important for him. So he donated a lot of books which were which were the the core of this library, which did grow after. And he donated many works to the foundation, many works from the beginning and to the end. Every year he donated one or two paintings, some drawings, some prints. So right now they have a very important collection.

Natasha: [00:28:28] And it's interesting because it's it's not a random collection because he thought he thought of you know, that's...there's intention in this collection. So I think it's it's pretty interesting.

Craig: [00:28:42] It's interesting. I recently had an artist, Glenn Brown, on the program who has held on to a great deal of his work and has recently opened up a similar sort of space where he lives in England. And one of the benefits that he said attracted him to that was the ability to have control of the works. Whenever someone wanted to set up an exhibition, he would have these core works that he drew inspiration from that he could access, but also key works that could be available for exhibition without having to ask for permission from this particular collector or worry about what the condition is going to be, or that it winds up being a little bit easier to put those events together when that is in your control, right?

Natasha: [00:29:38] Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I think it's a pretty...I think that Tàpies At the time was very very visionary. I think that people wouldn't do that. But I think nowadays, like artists have a new approach to their body of work. And with all the studies that has been done with artists' estate management and these kind of things, I think it's very brilliant today when artists start thinking like very early, like, what do I want to keep? How do I want it to grow? How much control do I want to have over my career and my body of work and everything? I think it's quite brilliant that artists are starting to do that instead of just trying to sell or move things around and survive. And I think that you need a very good vision of where you want to go. But there's also an afterlife thought, you know, you want as an artist, you want to be immortal and you want to keep like your body of work together somehow. You want to have control over like future interpretation. And also you have all these issues with errancies. Like where are your work going to go? Is there going to be like a massive auction when you die? You know, all these questions and when they keep it together in a foundation or a museum, then it's way more difficult to destroy what what you've built.

Craig: [00:31:04] We're we're on the eve of what would have been Top's 100th birthday. So we are celebrating the centenary of this artist. And I know that there was a recent exhibit at pace "Transmaterial", but there are other shows coming up. Can you guys kind of talk about what exhibitions and programs are planned to honor topics this year?

Toni: [00:31:29] Well, there are...Manuel Borja, the director of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, is organizing a big show, and the first venue will be in Brussels, in the Musee des Beaux-Arts - Bruxelles at the end of '23.

Natasha: [00:31:54] No, sorry. It's September. Next September.

Toni: [00:31:57] September? Yes, 2023. And then the show will go to Madrid to the Reina Sofia with more paintings from January to March maybe. And then after that, the show will come to the foundation in Barcelona.

Natasha: [00:32:21] Yes. So it's going to be like a tour that is going to take a year. Probably it's a year. So you have like four months in Brussels and then about four months in Madrid and then it goes to the foundation. So this will be very, very interesting. And there's something very symbolic also. Manuel Borja is a very important director and curator, but Manuel started his career with Tàpies, so he did his PhD on tap at the time at Columbia University. And when Tàpies opened the foundation, Manuel Borja was the first director at the foundation. So the great exhibitions from the beginning and all this creative energy coming out of Tàpies and Manuel, I mean, they were they were very strong together. And I think it's beautiful to see now Manuel is like ending his career, and he really wanted to end it with Tàpies, which we were super excited about. I think it's going to be very interesting and very good to see.

Craig: [00:33:26] I'd be really interested to hear his take on the kind of undertaking it would take for a curator. And I guess, Natasha, you've also curated shows like this, but to...when you have nine volumes of a catalog raisonné, right? There are so many different stories you can tell and do. Do we have an idea yet exactly what story will be told? I mean, will it be chronological by room or it will it be by commonality of theme?

Natasha: [00:34:02] I don't...we don't know yet. We've seen a part of the list of work. And I think it's it's very interesting like it's not necessarily going for the more commercial, let's say, but you start to see that, yes, it's telling a story. There's something and I don't think it's going to miss anything.

Toni: [00:34:24] Yeah, it will be an anthological exhibition, but I don't know exactly if there is also a precise idea or story...I can't tell you because I don't know.

Natasha: [00:34:41] What's what's also interesting is that Manuel, as a as a great power, you know, because he's at the Reina Sofia. So he has access to collectors and different people in the world. And I think because of this power is able to borrow very interesting artwork that we haven't seen for a long time. So this is why it's going to be exciting for us as well. So we're going to discover new things that old things that are new for us again. So...

Craig: [00:35:12] You know, he will be there in spirit. And what do you think he would want people to to walk away from this exhibit or people that, you know, go to the foundation for the first time or who, you know, try to discover his work? What what would he hope people to take away as his legacy?

Toni: [00:35:35] Well, first of all, I think he would be very happy. And then I think he would be happy to attract new publics to his work, new public, to the foundation in Barcelona.

Natasha: [00:35:53] Younger crowds.

Toni: [00:35:54] Younger crowd.

Natasha: [00:35:55] Exactly. People who are able to read the work in a different way. I think it's very exciting. So you can have people having new interpretation and feeling connected and feeling touched. Also, what I think is very important is the fact that Tàpies every painting of artwork is some sort of a piece of a puzzle. So the more you see, the more you understand the whole puzzle, like you get the whole image. So it's some sort of an alphabet, which is something that has been used quite often. The concept of alphabet, like the alphabet. So it's the idea that the more you read that is, the more you're able to read. Yes. So when you finish and you go back at the beginning and you reread it all over again, and then you're like, "okay, like I start to get it." So I really hope that people will be like, hungry for more and we'll start to develop this kind of reading to go a little deeper and to get out of some very typical idea that they have of Tàpies that are sometimes like very narrow. And to be able to go beyond and to be like, "wow." To be in awe with this artist. Because we are. We are like every day we are, like, so impressed and passionate about his work.

Toni: [00:37:21] It was his way of working. He never said, I will do a drawing or I will do a painting. When he was doing drawings. He put in front maybe 20 papers and he did 20 drawings because all of them were, as Natasha says, a part of the puzzle. And for the paintings it was more or less the same.

Natasha: [00:37:54] Yes.

Craig: [00:37:56] Toni, Natasha, I really appreciate you guys taking the time to sit down and have this conversation about the amazing prolific career of Tàpies and just the doors that the work just opens up and the opportunity for everyone to find something in there that that speaks to them. And I really appreciate your guys generosity and in being willing to have a conversation today.

Natasha: [00:38:28] Yeah. Thank you.

Toni: [00:38:28] Thank you to you for your interest.

Natasha: [00:38:30] Yes, it was lovely. Thank you for being curious and for the job that you're doing. And, you know, it's a very good thing.

Craig: [00:38:43] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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